I wanted to share with you a recent experience I had with our Upper Elementary students.
We have been studying human origins for some time and a project the students were very interested in trying was building a shelter in the same way our early ancestors may have built them. There was some discussion about which of our hominid family to try, (australopithicus, homo erectus, neanderthal or early homo sapien) and I put some limitations on the materials they could use: no living branches in respect for the living plants on campus, and of course no modern materials like milled lumber, nails, modern tools etc.
After a period of planning, the children set to work. I watched on a bench as the students spread out looking for materials, scouting out a location for their structure, and dividing the labor. There was a lot of activity, a lot of enthusiastic discussion, and a lot of work. There were some arguments too, and at one point I was convinced that one of the students was going to abandon the group project and make their own shelter independently. However, after some time and space, that student returned to the group and slid back into the process.
The students didn’t want to break for snack, and they would have worked on through lunch if I hadn’t stopped them for a discussion. I asked the group if there had been a clear leader that emerged from this project, and they unanimously agree that indeed there was a leader, who designed the shelter and directed activity to the group. I asked individual students what their role was in the process. Some were good searchers for materials, others were good at actually gathering them, others good at the building. One student said “I’m not really good at doing one specific thing, but I kinda do lots of things ok….I mean, we’re ALL special and bring different things”. That realization, from a 9 year old, was really gratifying.
I asked the students if working in a group is sometimes frustrating. The answer: an emphatic YES!. Then I asked if they think they could have accomplished the amount of work (size, complexity) they had completed if they were only able to work by themselves. The answer was a confident “No Way!” In fact, the “leader” of this group said “I’m really horrible at finding sticks. I would have spent the whole time looking around saying ‘Where are all the sticks!?'”. They all agreed that to be able to make the structure they did, they had to work together even when they did not always agree.
These students learned about division of labor, about specialization and about recognizing and appreciating difference in ability and talents. They learned that many hands make light work. They learned how to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group, in order to create something that no individual could have done alone. They learned all of this while having fun and exercising their intellect and bodies.
This is the beauty of the Montessori elementary program, described as Spontaneous Activity in Education by Montessori herself. Collaboratively, the students learn how to meet their individual needs, contributing their unique abilities to meet the needs of the group, all while enjoying the process. A great morning, indeed.